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Category Archives: Roundup

Weekly Mishmash: November 9-15

The Bigamist (1953). I had modest expectations for this melodrama, among the earliest of Ida Lupino’s directorial efforts. Ida also stars, alongside Joan Fontaine and a solid Edmund O’Brien as the title character. The bigamy situation is actually handled with a lot of sensitivity, with good and sympathetic performances all around. If only O’Brien’s bigamy wasn’t revealed so early (and the movie had a different title), the film would have had much more effective dramatic thrust. I wonder how the Production Code handled this — adultery is a no-no, but apparently bigamy is okay? Hmmm.
Blow-Up (1966). I think this is the second or third viewing for me; the first for Christopher. One of my favorite movies from the ’60s. Antonioni’s exuberant stylishness makes up for the fact that the film doesn’t really go anywhere for long stretches at a time. Furthermore, every scene involving mimes is so embarrassing that it makes me wince just writing about them (I don’t know if they’re true mimes, since true mimes don’t talk. Discuss this important topic at your own leisure.). Despite that, this is a quintessentially sixties experience that everyone should have at least once. Let’s give it up for the scene where David Hemmings bullies around a bunch of fashion models:

Cagney by John McCabe. A book that I’ve had for a good ten years or so, but never got around to reading until now. Why? This is a definitive bio of one of my faves. McCabe does a good job of both illuminating Cagney’s onscreen performances and explaining all the complexities of his personality (if only he didn’t rely so much on long, long quotes). Cagney was a street kid who aspired to be a song and dance man like Fred Astaire, a faithful and loving husband who sequestered his two children in their own separate living quarters, and a famous actor who found his deepest fulfillment in farming. A very interesting man, I’d say.
The End of Suburbia (2004). Although scattershot and cheaply produced, this was a pretty good documentary on how American’s addiction to fossil fuels and the outdated concept of suburban living is slowly destroying our society. Although I enjoyed it, at times the film verged into territory of stereotypically liberal hysteria — which damaged its credibility. Even so, I couldn’t shake the central message that Americans will have to make some hard lifestyle sacrifices to even survive another 50 or 100 years. Uplifting, eh?
Janet Jackson — Control. Like Thriller, another classic goodie that I snagged on Amazon for a song (sorry, couldn’t resist). This album sits right where R&B music sounded appealingly ’80s without getting too obnoxious and New Jack Swingy. To be honest, I’m more interested in further exploring Miss Jackson’s obscure first two albums (1982’s Janet Jackson and 1984’s Dream Street) than any of the slick and mega successful stuff that followed.
The Visitor (2008). Absorbing film about an economics professor (Richard Jenkins) whose dull life is turned around by a young couple who are unknowingly squatting in his NYC apartment. I wasn’t surprised to find that Thomas McCartney wrote the screenplay and directed, since it shares a lyrical quality with his previous film, The Station Agent. What drives this film is a fantastically compelling story (we watched it in one sitting, rare for us) in which even the smallest characters resonate vividly. Richard Jenkins deserves an Oscar nomination, and I loved the attractive Haaz Sleiman as the Syrian musician who teaches Jenkins to loosen up.

Weekly Mishmash: November 2-8

All the President’s Men (1976). Great movie that I’d never seen before. This was a remarkable view of the Watergate scandal from the media coverage side — which doesn’t tell the definitive story, but it is an illuminating angle nonetheless. Dustin Hoffman and Robert Redford truly drive the film as Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward. Aspiring journalists should check this out right away, and people who dig the look of 1970s office furniture (possibly only myself) will have a field day.
House by the River (1950). Dull Fritz Lang film about an aspiring writer from the early 1900s, played by Louis Hayward, who kills a household servant in a fit of passion. Hayward and his brother (Lee Bowman) spend the rest of the film trying to cover up the crime with middling results. Despite Lang’s directing credit, there was really nothing interesting or unusual about this movie — it plods along like a glorified TV drama, and Hayward is too over-the-top to make any lasting impact.
Point Blank (1967). One wild ride. I can see why this John Boorman-directed crime thriller is a bit of a cult item. The dazzling visuals and editing are ahead of their time, and Lee Marvin delivers a meaty performance as a stone-faced hit man driven to get his share of an unpaid debt. One thing that really popped about this film is the striking use of color, especially scenes where the set is mostly variants on one color. The apartment of Marvin’s ex-wife is nothing but white and silver, Angie Dickinson’s place is awash in yellow, while the office of the evil boss is nearly all olive green. At its core, this is a stylish but incomprehensible b-movie — but I’d have to agree with the IMDb reviewer who headlined his piece “Kind of confusing but exciting.”
Rick and Steve – The Complete First Season. This show, described as a gay South Park, was a pleasant surprise. It combines appealing, lego-like stop motion animation with primary colors and a smutty sense of humor. Episodes vary, but the scripts all have the know-how for mocking the stereotypes of LGBT life without wallowing in them. The second season premiere airs this week on the Logo channel. I wish I had the Logo channel.
Rollercoaster (1977). Somewhat fun, somewhat overlong thriller notable for being one of the few films (besides Earthquake) to use the very of-its-time gimmick of Sensurround. This movie is decidedly more low-key than the other ’70s disaster flicks, at times gaining a nice intensity missing from its campier brethren. Early on, there’s one good set piece with a coaster accident sending bloody dummies flying everywhere — after that it settles into a tired cat-and-mouse game with George Segal pursuing psycho bomber Timothy Bottoms. Scenes with the two tramping through Virginia’s Kings Dominion theme park play like a kinky version of that one Brady Bunch episode. The one where Mike’s architectural drawings got mixed up with Jan’s Yogi Bear poster, remember? I kept hoping one of the Bradys would pop up in the background somewhere.

Weekly Mishmash: October 26 – November 1

Chicago 10 (Independent Lens, PBS). Provocative 2007 documentary uses animation and newsreel footage to reconstruct the trial of the Chicago Seven, “Yippies” accused of inciting riots outside the 1968 Democratic National Convention. Except for the clumsy animation and obtrusive soundtrack, this was a well done film overall. I was amazed at how much news footage and/or home movies of the events the filmmakers found and weaved throughout the film. The scenes with self-absorbed lead Yippie Abbie Hoffman calling a radio deejay were a nice bonus.
Cop Hater (1958)Cop Hater (1958). Guess I was in a tawdry, low budget cop movie mood when this one showed up on Turner Classic Movies. Robert Loggia stars as a guy’s guy detective assigned to investigate a series of police slayings during New York City’s hottest summer. A standard plotline directed with all the panache of a live TV production, sure, but this movie has enough unusual elements to recommend it. For one, the hero’s girlfriend is a deaf mute, the serial killer aspect dates back early enough to be a novelty, and the heatwave setting requires most of the cast to lounge around in their skivvies. Real seedy (dig that poster!). The unfamiliarity of the cast is another real asset. A young and unknown Jerry Orbach just radiates grit as a teenage hood, for instance.
Michael Jackson — Thriller and Curtis Mayfield — Roots. Good week to take advantage of competing mp3 download services — iTunes proffered Thriller for only $4.98, while the 99 cent Roots was worth taking a chance over at Amazon. I’ve never heard Thriller before, since the album’s still jaw-dropping seven hit singles had already burned on my brain for a good 25 years. It’s a solid piece; even the two lesser known LP cuts (“Lady In My Life” and “Baby Be Mine”) are competent bits of early ’80s smooth R&B. But it’s the magnificently claustrophobic “Billie Jean,” the rockin’ “Beat It,” the smooth “Human Nature,” the funky “P.Y.T.” and the epic title tune that make it an album for the ages (“The Girl Is Mine” I can take or leave). Curtis Mayfield’s second album, 1971’s Roots, was another delight. Although the tracks tend to run a bit long, the entire album is suffused with a warm and cautiously optimistic “black is beautiful” spirit.
The Two Faces of Dr. Jekyll (1960) and Curse of the Mummy’s Tomb (1964). Two Hammer horror films from the early ’60s, both filled with gorgeous color photography and horrid acting, made for our Halloween entertainment. Two Faces was the slightly better of the two, with a barely adequate Paul Massie doing an unusual take on Jekyll/Hyde (Dr. Jekyll is a hiristute dullard, while Mr. Hyde is a clean-shaven and magnetic stud). Faring better were Dawn Addams as a fetching Mrs. Jekyll and a surprisingly sexy Christopher Lee as her wastrel paramour. Lots of dull padding weighs down this movie, but I was transfixed by the totally artificial Victorian London revealed in the film’s wild photography, costumes and sets. The hokey Curse of the Mummy’s Tomb had nothing at all to recommend it.
Vigil in the Night (1940). The one with Carole Lombard as a nurse trying to make do in a horrible British hospital. She comes across moderately well, often succumbing to the same Excess Nobility Disease that afflicted Norma Shearer in The Women. Character actress Ethel Griffies, strong as Lombard’s nurse matron, wound up making a memorable appearance as a bird expert in Hitchcock’s The Birds 23 years later.

Weekly Mishmash: October 19-25

Before getting to the weekly mishmashery, I need to spotlight a couple of links that I meant to post about earlier this week — but never did (this seems to be a recurring pattern here at First is a neato collection of vintage Peanuts animation commented on by Cartoon Brew’s Jerry Beck. The post also links to the clips — the trailer for You’re A Good Man Charlie Brown, an intro to The Tennessee Ernie Ford Show, and a preview of the 1961 Fords — without commentary. I love this stuff; your mileage may vary!
My second must-see is Mark Simonson’s post about the accuracy of vintage typefaces and props used in the first season of Mad Men. A fascinating examination of a beautifully produced show that — heresy alert! — I’ve never really warmed up to.

On to the mishmash:
Complete Motown Singles, Vol. 7: 1967Various — The Complete Motown Singles, Vol. 7: 1967. When Mom and Dad gave me a nice big gift certificate for my fortieth birthday, I immediately went online and placed an order for a volume of this wonderful but expensive CD series produced by Hip-O Select. After hearing all 120 songs on five discs, I can now confidently say that 1967 was my favorite vintage Motown year. This was the time when Marvin Gaye first duetted with Tammi Terrell, Stevie Wonder was emerging as a major talent, The Temptations were coming on strong under producer Norman Whitfield, and The Supremes went glam-tastic with “The Happening” and the quasi-psych masterpiece, “Reflections.” It’s also the year of some of the most underrated songs Motown ever put out — The Marvelettes’ “When You’re Young And In Love,” The Four Tops’ “7 Rooms Of Gloom,” Martha Reeves & The Vandellas’ “Honey Chile.” Surprisingly, many of the b-sides presented are as good as the flip sides. Here’s where the non-soul oddities that blemished the earlier volumes are ironed away: 1967 Motown was truly a nonstop hit producing machine. Fantastic stuff!
Iron Man (2008). This movie got mostly good reviews when it came out, didn’t it? Alas, both of us were pretty underwhelmed by the DVD. On the plus side, Robert Downey Jr. deserves all the credit for shaping the character of Tony Stark into something more than a teenage boy’s pastiche of a perfect man (filthy rich, gadget geek, and chick magnet!). On the minus side, this movie was awfully dumb and leaves an impression that’s distinctly more Transformers than Dark Knight. The usually reliable Gwyneth Paltrow and Jeff Bridges were both pallid as love interest and adversary, and for that I blame an uncompelling script. I know that superhero films require much suspension of disbelief, but this sports one too many “oh, come on” moments to count. Hopefully the inevitable next film in the franchise will improve.
Prix de Beauté (1930). This French melodrama, filmed as a silent but dubbed in with a soundtrack for release, would be a minor footnote of a film if it wasn’t the final starring vehicle for the comely Louise Brooks. She’s the whole show here, playing a young woman who enters a beauty contest against her boyfriend’s wishes — suffering the consequences when she wins the title of Miss Europe. The storyline is nothing special, leaving one to notice the director’s odd fascination with crowds and mechanical objects (really, this movie is practically a love letter to the linotype machine). Brooks is startlingly modern in her trademark helmet hairdo and a variety of simple casual wear ensembles. She does her best in a boring story that turns unexpectedly potent in the final ten minutes.
That Darn Cat! (1965). Despite being somewhat long and slapsticky, this is the pinnacle of ’60s live action Disney. Should be an object study on how to make family-friendly films that appeal to both adults and children. And Hayley Mills? Cute as a button.

Weekly Mishmash: October 12-18

Anne of Green Gables (1934). A wholesomely entertaining Cliff Notes version of L.M. Montgomery’s classic books. I see it as a very ’30s RKO literary adaptation, and a less satisfying companion to George Cukor’s Little Women from the previous year. Anne Shirley (she named herself after this role) plays the character a tad too obnoxiously, but she has an ingratiating charm that fits the curious Anne well.
The Devil’s Sword (1984). This one took me on a flashback to 1983: my dad, my two brothers and I were trying to decided what film to see. Most of us were leaning toward Airplane 2, but my older brother was absolutely hellbent on seeing a 3-D action adventure opus called Treasure of the Four Crowns. Majority ruled that day, but eventually we also saw Four Crowns as well — and it suuuucked. The Devil’s Sword, a cheesy Indonesian sword ‘n scorcery fest, is cut from the same mold. There’s a good guy and a bad guy, both trying to obtain a magical sword from the crocodile queen and her harem of Solid Gold dancers, along with several kung-fu fights, a badass old witch, and a boulder used as transportation device. In its defense, I was sufficiently intrigued by the wackiness to stay tuned to the film’s predictable conclusion. This would have been ten times better given a MST3K treatment, however.
Fallen Angel (1945). Good, not great, noir from many of the same personnel who worked on Laura. Dana Andrews is admirably sleazy as a chiseler who simultaneously pursues Alice Faye’s rich yet dim church organist and Linda Darnell’s hotsy-totsy waitress. The film is beautifully directed by Otto Preminger and filled with many sharp exchanges; I’d rate it higher if Dana wasn’t such a cad and the story wasn’t so familiar.
Hugo Montenegro - Moog PowerHugo Montenegro — Moog Power. One of those kitschy ’60s albums that I’ve always been curious about. This week, I came across a RapidShare download of the album (get it while it’s hot!) and finally got to hear why this was considered a crate digging gem for a time. About as ’60s as Sammy Davis Jr. in gold chains and a paisley nehru jacket, and just as inappropriately groovy. I love the white-bread male chorus on “More Today Than Yesterday” and “Traces,” and the dynamic “MacArthur Park” is tagged for definite inclusion on my next mix — which should be posted here next week. Keep yer ears peeled.
Targets (1968). Fascinating and intense film about a retiring horror film star (Boris Karloff, excellent) who decides to make one last public appearance — at a drive-in with a gun-toting maniac on the loose! Peter Bogdonavich directs and has a supporting role as actor. This movie has a distinctly modern take on violence in society, very detached and cool, and it results in a film that stays with you long after you viewed it. Scenes with the deceptively boyish looking killer on top of a water tower, dispatching highway motorists with chilling accuracy, have an uncomfortable resemblance to the Zapruder film (and this was only five years after the Kennedy assassination!). On a superficial note, I love the tacky blue-on-blue interior decoration on the sniper’s family home. My hat’s off to the set dresser who achieved that perfect Lawrence Welk Minimalist look.
Taxi to the Dark Side (2007). Compelling documentary from Alex Gibney, director of the equally hard-hitting Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room. This time Gibney turns his lens on an innocent Afghan taxi driver who was interrogated and tortured to death in 2002. This man’s story serves as a springboard toward discussions about Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo Bay, and the Bush administration’s underhanded attempts to redefine “torture” for its own means. While some methods might be more humane than others (forced Devil’s Sword viewings, perhaps?), torture is torture. The most refreshing aspect of this film is that it’s told in a straightforward manner with no obvious agenda. Having the people who were there speaking on what happened is its most effective narrative device. Oh, and Bush still sucks, pass it on.
Your Money Or Your Life: Transforming Your Relationship With Money And Achieving Financial Independence by Joe Dominguez and Vicki Robin. This was recommended to me by J.D. Roth of Get Rich Slowly fame a few years back; it didn’t enter my mind again until recently when I spied it on a thrift store shelf and purchased it for, like, a dollar (something the authors would approve of, I’m sure). Although published in the early ’90s, much of the sensible advice proffered carries even more relevance in today’s credit-strapped economic climate. I’m surprised at how much of the authors’ regime Christopher and I already follow. Get out of debt. Pay off your entire credit card every month. Cut out anything that uses excessive energy (you’d be amazed at how easy it is to live without a dishwasher or clothes dryer). Buy only stuff you need. Prioritize your life and weed out expensive hobbies and/or cash-sucking activities (buying new work clothes, for instance). I’d agree with J.D. that this book’s tone gets a bit New-Agey at times, but reading it inspired me to take steps further and track all of my income/expenses. I really need to know if my paltry income as a freelance designer is covering more than half of our household expenses. This book frequently gets republished; the next paperback edition comes out in December.

Weekly Mishmash: October 5-11

The Dark Knight (2008). For my birthday weekend, I wanted to see a movie the old fashioned way, sitting in the theater. Despite being months old, this was the movie I chose. For a summer blockbuster, it was pretty good. I liked the concept of a “realistic” superhero movie where the principals are essentially normal people who are capable of doing extraordinary things. Christopher Nolan’s direction was daring, violent and dark, with several impressive set pieces and neat storyline twists. That said, the movie was also punishingly overlong and too ambitious for its own good. The script’s several competing plots would be better suited to two (or more) films, Christian Bale was kind of boring, and Heath Ledger’s Joker didn’t quite live up to the hype (at least he wasn’t all hammy like Nicholson).
It’s The Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown!It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown! (1966). “I got a rock.” In a strange coincidence, much of the birthday haul this year had a “vintage Peanuts” theme. One brother got me The Complete Peanuts 1965-1966, another got me a DVD set containing the classic Halloween, Thanksgiving and Christmas specials, and my pal Ion gave me some cool magnets and sticky notes. Guess some people know me well! On this remastered DVD, the Great Pumpkin stands up well with a nifty new making-of featurette. I love the watercolor-style backgrounds and Vince Guaraldi’s mellow jazz piano. Still classic, very evocative, but not as much of a downer as the Christmas special.
Performance (1970). I’ve always been curious about this cult movie, but once seen it’s a bit disjointed and frustratingly split into two distinct halves. The first half is a dazzling Brit mob movie, with kinetic directoral touches that are far ahead of their time. For the second half, however, the filmmakers decided to ignore the script and do a lot of long, draggy scenes with Mick Jagger and his two groupies in their dingy flat. How very 1970. Disorientation rules throughout, but James Fox has a commanding presence as the badass mobster. The movie essentially belongs to him, despite the Jagger-heavy marketing.
Shree 420 (1955). One of the better Bollywood musicals I’ve seen, with a beautiful b&w production that’s on par with Hollywood efforts from the same era. It’s as overlong and campy as other films of its ilk — but once you get past star Raj Kapoor’s schmaltzy and overbearing Chaplin imitation (it fades as the film proceeds), this is a sweet and uplifting movie with several terrific musical numbers. One such scene, with leading lady Nargis instructing her students on the finer points of vegetables, is the very definition of adorable: